I’ve been playing piano at the Jewish Home for my mother for two and half years now. Mostly, it’s the great American songbook, those glorious songs by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Kern, Arlen and scores of other prolific tunesmiths. My mother mostly listens while residents Fran, Edie, Laya, Patsy and others sing along, always astounding me by their feats of lyric recall. One session generally lasts around an hour, ending with my continually re-worked and improvised “Leaving My Mama Blues.”
But during all this time, I keep thinking that I should bring some of the Orff xylophones over for folks to play. And so, after the concert madness, a Friday morning unloading instruments and performing yet again with the kids on Grandparent’s Day, colleagues James, Sofia and myself decided to all visit my mother together. Sofia grabbed a xylophone on her way out and so began my first venture into Orff Schulwerk for 90-year olds.
Amidst the many dynamic ideas and practices that the Orff approach embodies, one of the most stunning is the use of xylophones with removable bars to create the pentatonic scale (most familiar to the layperson as the “black keys on the piano”). With some basic knowledge of how to accompany the scale, anyone can sound instantly musical because “all wrong notes” have been removed. Which gets me wondering: Is there a parallel way to move through life? Might I make my millions marketing my Pentatonic Guide to Human Happiness—all wrong habits and ideas removed for you so whatever you do is right? Alas, in real life I’m afraid we have to discover and negotiate all the tensions and dissonances of the full chromatic scale and learn how to bring them all into some coherent harmony—no pentatonic shortcuts!
But at least in the field of music, the instant musicality of the pentatonic scale allows everyone, no matter the age, background or previous musical experience, to sound reasonably good if they can plunk a mallet down on a xylophone bar—and thus, give them the pleasure of instant music-making without all those tedious hours of practice and furrowed brows in the music theory class. And so James and Sofia put the xylophone on my Mom’s wheel-chaired lap, gave her a mallet and took turns having little musical conversation with her while I played the jazz tunes that fit so well with this scale—My Blue Heaven, Ja Da, Mares Eat Oats, Louise and others. May I proudly report how good my Mom sounded? Really, some impressive phrasing, melodic shapes, varied rhythms. (I want to return and record her for our next school CD). At one point, she looked up at the sky through the skylight and exclaimed, “The angels are listening to me!” And I think she was right.
Further down the line of these remarkable musical trios, she paused, turned to me with an astonished look and said, “This would be great to do with kids!”
And that’s how my mother invented Orff Schulwerk.